Friday, March 25, 2011

Cuenca Sunsets

The last two evenings we've been blessed with remarkable sunsets. These photos were taken from our bedroom window. I couldn't decide which ones to post, so just enjoy them all with me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Me and the song titles again (sigh)---------

When we got to Cuenca we had all kinds of ideas about the way things were going to be that haven’t quite turned out the way we thought. Take our notion about where to live. From the States we dreamed of finding a lovely apartment in the middle of the historic district. Our first residence in Charleston was like that and we loved holding hands and strolling through the quiet neighborhoods.


One of many things the guide books and Internet sites glorifying Cuenca don’t reveal is that much of downtown is loud and crowded, with horns blowing and buses everywhere belching disgusting diesel fumes. So that idea quickly got nixed.

Ok, then, we would find a nice house within walking distance of downtown. The best of both worlds. We looked at some houses, but the ones that were available weren’t so nice. Cuencanos overall don’t seem to be aware of the concept of updating houses, so the ones that were available had really rough kitchens and baths and generally just looked and felt tired. Another one bites the dust.

All right, an apartment near downtown then, but it must have a terrace. U-m-m---that didn’t happen either. Hey, don’t get me wrong, we love our place (there’s a post with photos 9/7/10 in the archives). The point is things can work out fine even if they don’t always go as planned.

We went through a similar mental odyssey with food preparation. Our vision from afar was to hire someone in Cuenca to teach us how to cook Ecuadorian dishes. What better way to assimilate into our new environment, right?


A commonsense revelation that probably should have occurred to us was that when you live in Ecuador you can get Ecuadorian cuisine pretty much everywhere. Duh--------. And when our favorite nearby vegetarian restaurant, as an example, serves up more food and drink than we can even finish for $1.70 each, why bother?

So our culinary emphasis shifted to trying to find the ingredients to prepare American dishes that we enjoy. This proved to be a tremendous challenge at first, but as we’ve lived here for nearly a year things have gotten progressively easier. Availability slowly improves (Supermaxi now stocks kickass ribs!), our language skills also improve, albeit at a glacial pace, and through random chitchat we learn of obscure shops that occasionally yield obscure items.

When we returned to the States during the holidays our children were kind enough to save magazines for us to bring back. Rolling Stone’s “The Beatles 100 Greatest Songs,” Men’s Health, Martha Stewart, and one we didn’t know about---Food Network Magazine. We love the Food Network and miss it dearly, so this group of mags was of particular interest and we have slowly savored each page.

And, in response to numerous requests, from the April 2010 issue here is the Avocado Pie recipe mentioned in my previous post. This confection represents a step up the culinary ladder for us because it was a first attempt (and successful one at that!) to make use of an abundant local ingredient in a new, interesting way. One disclaimer for Cuenca readers—we brought graham cracker crumbs in our container and haven’t seen them here. But there is a Nabisco vanilla cracker/cookie that will probably make a fine substitute.

Disfrutar! (According to Google Translate that means "Enjoy!")


5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt


2 medium avocados
1 8 ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
Whipped cream, for garnish (optional)

1. Make the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush an 8 inch springform pan with some of the melted butter (a regular deep dish pie pan will substitute). Mix the remaining butter with the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, & salt in a bowl. Press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool completely on a rack.

2. Make the filling: Halve and pit the avocados, then scoop out the flesh and chop. Transfer to a bowl, add the cream cheese and beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth. Add the condensed milk, lime & lemon juices, and the salt and beat until fluffy, scraping the bowl as needed. Pour the filling directly into the crust, press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface (very important to keep it from turning brown!) and chill at least 4 hours.

3. Remove the springform ring and slice the pie. Garnish with whipped cream, if desired, and serve immediately. Re-cover any remaining pie with plastic wrap before returning it to refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Smells Like Gringo Spirit

Part 3 of those three crazy days last week. Sometimes I fret about the song title references I use for blog post titles. Then I think, "Oh, well----------."

The day couldn’t have started out more normally. Cynthia and I had invited two of our “gal pals” over for lunch and an afternoon of bridge. Cynthia made homemade chicken salad and I went out on a limb with a never-tried-before avocado pie (turned out to be delicious—both thought it was key lime).

We’ve eaten and played cards for a bit when Julia’s cell phone rings. Uh, oh, two chairs she’s having made for her new apartment are ready and need to be delivered in the next half hour. Bummer. We’re having fun and not ready to quit, so we hastily decide to pack up the cards, the score sheet, and the wine and just move the party to her house.

We go downstairs, hail a cab, cram ourselves in and head to the other side of town. Julia scoots off to an ATM, and while she’s gone the delivery guys actually arrive on time (very unusual) so we have them bring up the chairs and wait until she returns and pays them.

All of us spend the next half hour or so rearranging her living room furniture. Thinking back I’m not certain Julia actually solicited the group’s decorating advice. Guess I’ll find out next time we visit-----------.

Wine is poured, cards are dealt, the bidding has started, and---damn, Julia’s phone rings again. This time a friend’s maid is stranded down the street because he can’t get home, but it just so happens that Bev, our other bridge buddy, had to give up her time with this same maid yesterday and would be thrilled to have her now, and-----. It’s beginning to seem like every time Julia gets a call we enter a new episode of the Twilight Zone.

Well, there’s only one thing to do, right? We pledge to remember who bid what, grab the wine once again, stick our dealt hands of cards in our back pockets, and off we go. It turns out Bev only lives about 4 blocks from Julia and the stranded maid is halfway between, so we swoop her up en route and hoof it over to Bev’s place. On the way we’re all laughing about this impromptu episode of “progressive bridge” and noting how in our former lives, unless we all lived on the same cul-de-sac (and probably not even then), this spontaneous craziness could have never happened.

At this point we’ve got nowhere left to go, thank goodness. The maid is cleaning, and we’re finally playing cards. Except Julia now realizes she needs to get to the Supermaxi before it closes. We finish a game, or a rubber (I don’t know how to keep score)---anyway, we finish something, then she’s off. By this time a simple afternoon of bridge at our house has remarkably found its third home—an imagined ending of maybe 5 o’clock has stretched to 8—and we’re starving. Julia claimed she was coming back after her grocery shopping but nobody's putting any bets on that. Bev somehow quickly rustles up a yummy dinner for the remaining three of us. The wine we’d been dragging around with us is long gone so we keep the party going with hers.

As we sit eating and chatting her buzzer rings. What?? Against all odds, Julia really has returned, bags of groceries in hand. She fixes herself a plate and we unanimously decide to forego further card playing. After more yakking and drinking we call it a day/night around 10. Cynthia and I share a taxi with Julia and her groceries, dropping her off on our way home.

On the ride back, I think about the free spirit all of us have shared that day. So many things went “wrong;” so many things could have “messed things up;” so many things might have been interpreted as “aggravating.” But, you know what, we had a fantastic time and it truly never occurred to any of us to complain or be negative.

Undoubtedly, we’ve changed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pay It and They Will Really Come!

There is an organization in town called Coopera that loans money to local farmers, then buys and sells their meat & produce (much of which is organic) at several outlets around town. The farmers’ profits allow them to pay back their loans, provide for their families, and hopefully save some money as well. This business model has been wildly successful, so much so that the Ecuadorian government is actually consulting with the group’s leaders.

But in order to loan money you’ve got to have deposits, right? Coopera always pays generous interest, and this week they sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day event, of all things, in cooperation with a new alliance of local business owners called the Cuenca Referral Network. The email flyer promised a cocktail, snacks, and a presentation of financial products, which most prominently included CD’s---at 10.5% interest.

Apparently that number got a lot of folks’ attention, because the courtyard of Coopera’s headquarters in San Joaquin village, in spite of being a L-O-N-G taxi ride from Cuenca, was packed at the noon starting time. Of course the event didn’t actually start at noon. It’s a rule of thumb that expats are almost always punctual and Ecuadorians rarely are, so the staff was still scurrying around getting organized until we eventually got rolling at about 1:15.

The head honcho gave a long, flowery, heartfelt welcome and introduction made doubly long because he spoke zero English, thus through an interpreter we got to hear his speech twice. Next we saw a Powerpoint presentation followed by a Q&A session that quickly got testy.

Why is it in every crowd there’s that one obnoxious personality who you just want to throttle? One lady kept grilling the Coopera people about insurance on deposits and shouting out, “That’s a lie!” when she wasn’t satisfied with their answers. Incredibly rude. Finally she was put in her place by another guest (no, surprisingly it wasn’t me) who suggested she keep her money in US banks and see how well that $250,000 FDIC promise held up if the government went belly-up. It turns out, by the way, that deposits are insured up to $25,000 here.

When order was restored and the meeting was adjourned it was well after 2 o’clock and I was starving. Apparently I wasn’t alone. In Ecuador it is traditional at events such as this for food to be served by waiters on silver trays. Very formal. Said trays began emerging pretty quickly but for the poor staff it was like throwing a kitty cat in a piranha pond—they were mobbed before they could get 10’ from the staging area.

This meant the guests sitting farthest away from the action weren’t getting any action. So being the resourceful and practical Norte Americanos that we are, protocol was dispensed with, the middlemen were eliminated, and we all just queued up at the steam trays and got us some vittles, damn it.

The food was quite good, St. Patty’s cream de menthe cocktails were plentiful, and the mood soon mellowed out. It was announced that the officials of Coopera would be honored for us to board buses to see their hacienda where various crops were grown and animals raised. This was optional but the offer sounded benign enough so after lunch concluded we all climbed aboard to take a look.


We rode for a L-O-N-G time. I asked one of the organizers if we were still in Ecuador. And you know what you’re thinking in these situations: oh, crap, however long this friggin' drive takes, we’ve got to get back, Jack, and do it again. It had to be at least an hour before we arrived. I, and I think everyone else, was under the impression we were going to have a cocktail and some snacks, see a little presentation, and we’re outta there. Instead it was after 3, we were in the middle of nowhere doing we didn’t know exactly what and returning we had no idea when.

Let me pause the narrative here to insert that I’m not meaning for this description of the day's events to sound critical. I fully understand the Coopera peeps are justifiably proud of what they have created and were anxious for those of us who were thinking about investing to have a comfort level with their operation. Our whole afternoon was simply another example of the cultural differences that unintentionally cause things to sometimes not turn out exactly as anticipated. In this case and at the most basic level, we gringos come from a world where events start punctually and have a well-planned agenda and schedule. Cuencanos habitually start late and don’t seem to grasp the concept of anything finishing “on time.”

Sadly this hacienda we spent at least an hour getting to wasn’t “all that.” There was a pig house that smelled, well, like a pig house. My God, the stench was stifling--I almost puked. A rabbit/guinea pig house. An outdoor pig holding area with rude and noisy tenants (my image of kind and humble Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web was shattered forever). A garden growing things. Honestly, we drove a L-O-N-G way---to see a 4-H project. Plus it had started to rain. I’ve been to a fair before and seen livestock—I’ve even had a garden. So personally I was kinda over it at this point and stayed under cover. But interestingly most of the guests dutifully trooped around getting soaked wherever the guide took them (hey, I came all the way out here—you’re damn right I’m gonna see everything—what else are you growing on this hacienda? Show it to me---now!)

So the tour was over. Time to go home, right? Uh, no. Let’s first sit everyone down inside and serve them a big bowl of chicken soup—with French fries floating around in it—and a big piece of chicken sticking up in the middle. Then let’s give them a tiny plastic spoon and watch them try to figure out how, if they’re like cruise ship people and still somehow really hungry after the big lunch we just fed them, to eat that piece of chicken.

Now I feel like I’m getting cynical, and I apologize for that as well as for this being so long, but crap, it was a L-O-N-G day! The Ecuadorians were putting on a show for us; they were putting forth their best effort to entertain us and make a good impression. Understood. It just wasn’t working.

Finally we finished our soup, got on the buses and headed back to Cuenca. Now the rain was really coming down and it was past 6 PM. When we got into town I noticed we were kinda near my neighborhood and realized something—if I continued on to the drop-off place two buses were going to simultaneously regurgitate a bunch of passengers who would all be trying to do the same thing---hail cabs---simultaneously. Not a pretty picture.

I asked the driver to drop me off and I proceeded to run home—in the rain—with no jacket and no umbrella. I arrived home—in the rain—drenched and chilled to the bone. But at least I wasn’t standing out there with everyone else hoping for a cab to come by, which at this point seemed like a very good thing.

The wet clothes were shed. Warm pajamas were donned. Wine was poured. A date with our neighbors in the adjacent building was postponed. I guess something was eaten; I don’t really remember. And a correction to the previous blog—it was on this night that American Idol was watched—we’re always a day behind. Sorry about that.

I’m certain that more wine was poured. And in spite of the day being a bit “off,” shall we say, and all the shenanigans that happened, compared to what my portfolio in the States is doing, that 10.5% interest still looks mighty attractive---------.

It's important in life to keep your priorities straight.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pour It and They Will Come

It’s a gray, rainy Saturday morning—the perfect time to sit here with a cup of coffee and “get my blog on.” Several of my fellow bloggers are much more diligent about posting on a regular basis. In my case sometimes I just don’t feel like I have anything worthwhile to say, and other times I’m too damned busy to take the time to write.

The past few days have definitely fit the latter category. The #1 question on potential expats’ minds seems to be, “What do you do with yourself all day way down there in Cuenca, Ecuador?” Well, jump in, ride shotgun, and fasten your seat belts. Here’s Part I of a three-part series on “Being TeamStaton.”

Tuesday night’s Gringo Night at Di Bacco had been particularly festive. That is to say, the crowd was large, loud, and lubricated. By pure coincidence the couple that we were to meet the following evening for dinner just happened to wander in not even aware of our weekly event, so we ate and drank with them before heading home pretty late and flopping into bed.

Perhaps we should have exercised a bit more self-control, because Wednesday morning required an early start for an unusual outing---a field trip to the local rum distillery. That’s right—a rum distillery—at 10 in the morning. But you know us---por que no! Giddyup!

And apparently we weren’t alone with that sentiment. The bus was packed with what I deemed the “Gringo All Stars.” These are our party-hearty brethren who never miss an opportunity to have a good time---especially when alcohol is involved---regardless of the hour.

So off we all went to Cuenca’s own San Miguel rum factory. A lot of us thought we were going on more of a “journey” and were surprised that the facility was in fact on the outskirts of town. Upon arrival we were all herded off the bus and into a dimly lit presentation area where we were shown a very professional video about the San Miguel’s history, philosophy, and business operations.

When this was over we expected the lights to come up but that never happened. It was explained that the high alcohol content in the air from the huge oak barrels below required the lighting to be kept extremely low to avoid possible spontaneous combustion. We got a chance to go downstairs to observe this area and learn about the liquor’s aging process. From there the tour ended with a long, open bar, drink-all-you-want visit to the tasting room. Which, keeping it real, was the primary reason all of us were there anyway. And finally an opportunity to purchase some booty at a discount price to take home.

It was my observation that the crowd was for some unknown reason much more animated on the trip back to the Chamber’s headquarters (this event was sponsored by the Cuenca Chamber of Commerce). And because I’m certain everyone exercised an admirable level of self discipline and restraint regarding alcohol consumption, I must say I was amazed to observe a sudden and serious outbreak of what could only have been some variety of “high altitude motor skills impairment” as a surprising number of my colleagues seemed almost unable to walk under their own power as they stumbled from the vehicle.

From there the herd split off into various sub-groups for lunch. We went with some folks to our favorite nearby vegetarian restaurant (lunch-of-the-day---$1.70 for soup, juice, and entrée that is so big you can hardly finish it), then walked home and crashed. Hard---------.

Which was a very good thing, since Cynthia had a doctor’s appointment at 4, we had a business meeting at 5, then we were meeting that couple from the previous night for drinks and dinner at 6. All of those things happened. The four of us then went to a bar for more drinks, and because it was a lovely evening we walked home after saying goodnight to our friends.

A very eventful day concluded with us sitting in the dark watching the American Idol episode I had downloaded earlier. With a rum nightcap, of course-------.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The first year Cynthia and I lived in Charleston, SC we rode out Hurricane Floyd. Our decision to remain in town was based neither on bravado nor stupidity. In truth the evacuation of the city was so poorly planned that the freeways were hopelessly backed up and leaving really wasn’t a choice.

It was a scary night but we obviously survived. The next morning I walked around to assess the damage and retrieve our car which I had parked in a garage in case the streets flooded. It was an amazingly eerie feeling to stroll through what in one day had become a ghost town. All the doors and windows were boarded up and the vast majority of the population had fled. There were no cars, no pedestrians. And the silence was remarkable.

I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, but today walking to the Supermaxi the memory came rushing back. Because today Cuenca is also a virtual ghost town.

It is Carnaval here, and today is the final day of a four day celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday. Everyone who can has left the city to celebrate at the coast or family places in the country. Almost every shop and restaurant is closed.

As I write this I am looking out the window onto Avenida Paucarbamba, our main thoroughfare. There is not one moving vehicle or pedestrian in sight on what is normally a bustling Tuesday afternoon. As I walked to the store earlier I was struck with the recognition of that same weird silence I experienced in Charleston in 1999. I heard no car alarms because there were no cars in use. No dogs were barking since there were no people walking by to provoke them (I’ve taken this route enough to know which houses to avoid).

There is a taxi stand outside the grocery store. Waiting with shopping bags was a woman and her child. No taxis. It suddenly struck me that I hadn’t seen a single cab on my walk, which is highly unusual. Uh-oh. I had a long list in my pocket that included frozen items. What to do?

I sat outside a few minutes to assess my situation. A lot of times we all “go with the flow” here, but today there was no more than a “drip” to go with(which was what my ice cream and bag of ice purchases were going to be doing if I didn’t be proactive and come up with a plan). Although the lady was having no luck at the taxi station I observed a couple of cabs go by a half block away on a perpendicular street. Armed with this nugget of reconnaissance I decided to take my chances and go for it.

Inside the Supermaxi I met some blog fans who have just arrived in town. They’re staying in a hotel nearby and were checking out the store since everything else was closed. I offered to have them accompany me up and down the aisles so I could show them some of the things we’ve learned the hard way through trial and error over this past year. Longtime readers know I’ve experienced many misadventures within those walls.

After we parted and I paid the bill I had the bag boy stay with the groceries at the stand while I jogged up to the corner. Sure enough I immediately flagged a taxi and signaled him to drive around the block and pick me and my bags up. When my new friends emerged and saw us loading the trunk they said, “Wow, you were lucky!” No, sometimes you have to create your luck.

It is 3 PM now and I’m starting to see a slow trickle of cars on the street. Our citizens are returning and Cuenca is coming back to life. Tomorrow morning the buses, car alarms, honking horns, and barking dogs will all be back on duty. The peace and quiet has been a delightful holiday of its own for those few of us who remained in town.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Behind the Green Button

Recently I made perhaps my most shocking discovery since moving to Ecuador. When one relocates to a different country and culture the learning curve is almost perpendicular, and every day is filled with new revelations. So you know this one had to be a “biggie.”

I’m over at a friend’s place and bitching about having had to watch the Oscars telecast in Spanish. With a lot of live broadcasts here the shows are actually in English but someone loudly voices over in Spanish so you can’t really hear what’s being said.

She says, “I watched it in English.”

I said, “How in the hell did you do that?”

She says, “Don’t you know about the green button?”

I said, “What green button?”

“The one on the remote. When you push it you get a choice of English or Spanish.”

“W-h-h-a-a-a-t-t-t???? How did you know that???”

“Didn’t you read your instruction manual? I’m sure it’s in there.”

“Of course I didn’t read the damn instruction manual. It’s as thick as a magazine---and it’s in Spanish. I can’t get through a Jorge Curiosa book yet.”

“Well, actually I didn’t read it there either. A Cuencano friend’s kid told me about it , I think.”

So there it was. The Green Button. The master key that could potentially unlock a whole new world of understanding. Something this important from now on deserved to be spelled with Capital Letters.

As soon as I got home I turned the TV on to the same channel I had watched the Oscars. An old movie was playing---in Spanish. I pushed the Green Button, and sonofabitch, it switched to English. You know what I did next—the same thing you would have done if you were sitting in my living room with the remote in your hand.

I went through every single channel and pushed that Green Button every single time, that’s what I did. No, it didn’t always work—National Geographic Wild stayed in Espanol while the regular National Geographic cooperated, as an example. But I’d say I now have at least 20 more viewing choices than before in English.

Hey, we’re not even big TV people. Many folks find us odd because in nearly 40 years of marriage we’ve never once had a television in our bedroom. In fact we haven’t even watched one program since this discovery. But just the knowledge that you can is empowering, isn’t it?

Cuenca readers, I’m interested to know if I’ve just revealed something to you or if Cynthia and I have been walking around town alone with our “Stupid” signs on. This is for DirectTV only, by the way.

March Madness is going to be a lot more enjoyable than I’d anticipated, that’s for sure. Now bring on the Food Network and I’m set!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cuenca's Flower Children

After several blunt, tell-it-like-it-is posts, it's refreshing to share this account of a fun day trip that 24 “flower children,” including ex-weekend hippies Cynthia and me, took this week. Early Wednesday morning we boarded a comfortable bus for an outing to a rose farm and nearby resort.

After a pleasant ride to Canar we arrived at Altaflor, a flower growing operation that was much bigger and more impressive than most of us anticipated.

Altaflor employs over 200 people and ships on average 28,000 stems per day. During Valentine’s their production was over 60,000 daily. Folks, that’s a bunch of flowers (pardon the pun)!

We owned a large interior landscaping/floral business in Atlanta for 15 years, and during that time I visited many commercial greenhouses throughout Florida. So I must tell you how impressed I was with the efficiency and cleanliness of this operation.

Altaflor is a proud member of FlorEcuador, an organization that determines quality standards for its certified membership of fresh-cut flower growers. Minimal environmental impact, reduced usage of pesticides, and prohibition of child labor are admirable objectives that are required. I observed total compliance in all these areas. The workers were happy and the place was remarkably tidy.

It was amazing to be surrounded by so many flowers of all colors.

I’ve always thought of rose bushes as being, well-----bushes. But some of these bad boys were over 10 ‘ tall! Turns out that much height is needed to achieve the length and caliper of stem required.

70% of Altaflor’s entire crop is sent to Russia, of all places. And talk about cultural differences---Russia wants their roses with extra-long stems and blooms much more open at purchase than the US and European markets.

Commercial floriculture is more like the fashion industry than you might imagine. Exotic colors and types of flowers are suddenly the latest fad, placing growers under a lot of pressure to stay up with current tastes and styles while incurring considerable expense to eliminate unpopular varieties and produce new ones. Plus staying on top of funguses, diseases, and insects---this business is a business, my friends, not a hobby!

While at Altaflor we observed the whole growing, harvesting, packing and shipping processes, and I found it fascinating. I’m sure all of us left with a much greater appreciation of the work that goes into that bouquet of flowers we casually pick up at the supermarket or neighborhood florist.

It was time for a tasty lunch and relaxing afternoon, and we definitely got both at our next stop, Hosteria Uzhupud in nearby Paute. Uzhupud is a 19th century grand hacienda just 35 minutes from Cuenca that has been converted into a beautiful resort.

The main building is absolutely gorgeous and the extensive 30 acre grounds are lushly landscaped.

We all enjoyed dining al fresco on a sunny and warm Ecuadorian afternoon,

then doing our own thing—strolling the property, socializing, napping (Cynthia), or switching into swimwear and napping (me). It was the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

After a short ride back to Cuenca we said our goodbye’s and for at least two of our group, a light dinner and an early bedtime awaited. I highly recommend a visit to Altaflor for an enrichment experience and to Hosteria Uzhupud for a lovely (and possibly romantic?) getaway.